“There’s a name for you ladies. But it isn’t used in high society, outside of a kennel.” When Joan Crawford threw that classic line out at the rest of The Women in 1939, she was dancing right on the edge of what the censors would allow.
“You’re a vile, sorry, little bitch!” That came 25 years later when Bette Davis shrieked the line in Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte. Ironically, it originally would have been hurled at Crawford, but she had been replaced by Olivia de Havilland as part of the drama that was the Crawford/Davis feud. (Davis would slap me for billing it that way.)
Over the years, the movies have given us some classic bitches: Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Beth Jarrett in Ordinary People, Joan Crawford (again) in Mommie Dearest. Not an appropriate role model in the lot.
“Bitch” was a toxic word, not just because of the malicious selfishness that it implies, but because it connotes a female (not a woman) who is acting too aggressively, showing too much unladylike strength, behaving too much like a man.
One need only add “son of a” in front of the word for it to become the most powerful insult to a man. Describing a man as a bitch is feminizing or even emasculating. If a sexual component is included, there is the implication of submission and weakness. Think “prison bitch.”
Perhaps no other word has been used more frequently by more people to put more folks in their assigned gender places and to demean them for not getting it right in the first place. Fear of being labeled a bitch has resulted in some women trying to hide their strength and some men from showing any signs of vulnerability. Any word that powerful warrants more serious consideration.
Now back to the movies. Along came Vera Donovan—a self-described bitch who was crusty and somewhat lovable—who reframed bitchery as a means to an end. “Sometimes you have to be a high riding bitch to survive. Sometimes being a bitch is all a woman has to hang on to.” (Of course when she said that to Delores Claiborne, Vera was co-signing on the murder of Delores’ husband, but let’s not put too fine a point on it.)
Because Vera was right, wasn’t she? Haven’t most of us been in a situation where fairness failed, intelligent and informed arguments failed, and even charm failed? Haven’t you ever wanted to do something the nice way, the right way, but had to do it the ugly way because that was the only way? That may have been a moment when you worked with your inner bitch.
And reframing bitchery isn’t just the province of women. I’ve known quite a few men who could be very effective as high riding bitches, too. And they weren’t all gay.
Now you may be asking yourself, why is this the subject of the Christmas column? Can’t we have some hope and peace this holiday season? Well, no. To paraphrase Sarah Palin for the only time in my life, how’s that “hopey peacey” thing working out for ya? Not so well, from where I’m sitting.
So if your Christmas gift to yourself is a new found appreciation for your inner bitch, it should follow that your New Year’s resolution is to put that bitch to work. Being a bitch may not be all we have to hang on to, but a lot of what we do have seems to be under threat.
And if enough of us—women, men, people of color, LGBTQ folks, and everyone else under attack (people at the FBI, for example)—start “riding high,” we might turn this thing around. If that happens, you might get a sweet little Christmas column next year. I “hopey peacey” so.
Before anyone had coined the term “resting bitch face,” Mother insisted on my keeping a pleasant expression on the phizzog she had handed me. (Which was very challenging at times, what with growing up gay in East Texas and all.) She had no tolerance for what today is called “resting bitch face.” I agree. No part of an empowered bitch ever rests—particularly not the face.
You need to save that expression for when you mean it. Really mean it.